Social disclosure is the source of intimacy, the essence of social relations and measure of social life.
On a larger, societal scale, news anchor, Aaron Brown, plays the disclosure role. Centuries ago, travelling minstrels and town criers served much the same purpose as Brown. At chance meetings, roaming hunters and gatherers traded what they knew about migrating herds, shortcuts through rugged terrain and common enemies.
Knowledge is the consuming passion of the social animal, which depends on wit for survival. "More, more, more" is the anthem of a species that depends on wit. All is never enough.
Never all at once. When somebody dumps a pile of personal information, all at once, it's scary. "Do I need to know about the corns on her big toe," you wonder, as the details stream.
Gossiping is a most public form of social disclosure. "Did you hear that Wilma saw Hugo and Martha sneaking out of the Dormitorios RÃ¡pidamente por Hora Motel?" So, too, are rumours. "The bosses are stopping the pension plan," says Maria. Passing along on urban legends serves much the same purpose. "Lolita told me a madman, with a hook for a right hand, attacked her cousins, Carlota and Boris, while they parked in the woods last Friday night." The more we disclose, the stronger our friendships become.
Disclosure is a social lubricant. "I bombed the Zen of sociology course. All I got was C-." A little disclosure gets the conversation going. "Me too; took the course last year and squeaked by. It's a toughie, for sure." Social disclosure sets the conservational agenda, which picks up next time the students meet.
A little disclosure keeps the conversation going. "I took a course with Professor Witch. All the time, she just stared at me when she talked, it creeped me out. I almost dropped the course." "Hey, I took a course with her, too. She gave me the willies. I dropped her course before it was too late." Disclosing similar social experiences brings people together.
Effective gossip is revealing. "Did you hear about Stan? He took that course with Professor Witch - that's all she can teach - and got a D-. "Stan got a D-! You're kidding!"
Mix in a little rumour, and the epoxy gains strength. "When Stan went to ask about the mark, she said that, "a male gets enough free passes in life and Stan had to learn about being a victim.'" Lasting friendships form around disclosures about the evilness of Professor Witch.
Those who are up to date on your life, your loves and your problems are closest to you. Experience confirms they're trustworthy and loyal, disclosure ensures they remain close to you. Social relations are an adhesive and disclosure is the epoxy.
Social disclosure is an intentional act. The act is giving information friends wouldn't know unless you told them. Schools closely guard grades. Students tell their friends, truthfully; grade inflation affects disclosures to those a student wishes to impress. Professor Witch is unlikely to tell anybody of your affair with her.
The act of social disclosure is a gift. Gifts go to those we trust and respect, and those we think share our ideas. The gift, in social life and social relations, is intimacy, based in a shared world view.
As with giving any gift, especially intimacy, reciprocity is necessary. When we give the gift of disclosure, we expect something in return. It's best, with friendship and disclosure, to return in kind.
Disclosure involves significant information. "I like peanut butter," is cavil and lacks meaning. "Marge," says Wilma, "I'm going to ask Howard to marry me when we go out to dinner, tonight." Marge now knows something no one else knows. This strengthens the bond between Marge and Wilma.
The weight of social disclosure varies. That you like peanut butter is important to the peanut butter company, especially if it's a new taste, and to you; few others think such information valuable. An impending marriage is significant to family and friends; if it isn't, recheck the strength of their relationship.
Secrets are meaningful. "I've never told anyone this," forms a bond. "You are the only one I'd ever tell," forges the strongest bond. Teenage girls work secrets to the hilt; boys use urban legends to same ends.
Not all revelations are equal; some are more revealing than are others. Breadth and depth of social disclosure is critical. As coworkers reveal more and more about their lives off the job, their solidarity grows stronger.
"After 18 years of marriage," says Walt to Mary, "if it wasn't for the kids, I'd be gone. Once the kids are out the door, I'm gone, let me tell you." The implied spouse may not know what a coworker does. That's intimacy.
Disclosures about personal matters are deeper, and contribute more to friendships. "What gets to me most is her brother and sisters," says Walt. "They expect us to do everything; Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthday parties for their parents. It's stressful, and expensive. They just arrive, eat and drink, and leave the house reeking of McPhoney flatulence. I don't think I can handle another holiday, but I just can't afford to go until after the kids are out of the house, for good. I just don't have the money."
Among casual acquaintances, those you might have with those you chat up at the coffee shop, the breadth of disclosure may be wide, but shallow. "Gay marriage is okay. Gays are just people. Let them do what people do."
The closer a relationship, the more likely is breadth and depth of disclosure on at least one topic. "I'm lesbian, mum, and I'm going to marry." "Let me tell your father, dear."
When disclosure is absent, men and women go to grotesque ends to find it. Intimacy is a basic social need, mythically, more for women than for men. A theme of the novels of the late Judith Rossner, author of "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," is that we'll swap most anything for a few sweet little lies. Casanovas know this well.
Social disclosure has other purposes, too. Something may be gnawing at you. Getting a worry off your chest eases apprehension, anxiety and lets you rest easy. Confession is good for the soul, in many ways, and not just for Roman Catholics.
Most times, telling a friend helps you get a better grip on your worries: clarity through expression. What you disclose depends on whom you tell. How they react tests the relationship.
Whatever you reveal contributes to your social image. Are you older than you look? Married, but act single. Poor, but act rich as you fall deep into debt. Do you act nasty to protect yourself? Acceptance strengthens friendships.
Social disclosure, in a sense, is controlling. "Now, you know my dirty little secrets and must not tell. If you tell mine, I'll tell yours." Disclosure eases your load and builds friendships, but there's a reciprocal price to pay.
All social action is controlling. Absence of control is chaotic, and different kinds of control exist. Parents convince children to eat broccoli by reminding them that ice cream follows. Friends try to convince friends to go one movie over another. Often, major disclosure, "I cheated on Marcia," is a grasp for permission or penance.
Negotiation is about control. "We did what you wanted, last time. This time, it's my turn." Relationships routinize control. Jack decides on the movie. Diane decides on the restaurant. Together, they decide whose car to use. "Mine has a full tank of gas," says Diane, "so we're taking your car, Jacko."
Most often, control is not the goal. "I love you," claims a suitor, on bended knee, in hopes of hearing, "I love you, too. And, yes, I'll marry you." If she hears, "That's nice, now, isn't," a relationship dissolves and heartbreak ensues. The intent wasn't mutual, and there was little room for negotiation.
When control is the goal, a relationship is unlikely to develop. If a relationship is underway and control rears its ugly head, it's time to terminate. Ideally, control provides flexible limits.
What are the limits of disclosure? Anything that fits the situation is fair game. Revealing the A+ you earned in Zen of Sociology is okay if those who failed or received low grades aren't around. At bowling night, you can whine about kid problems, spouse problems or problems at work; only some family members and your very closest friends want to hear how your gallbladder operation isn't healing.
Two lines of disclosure seem off limits. Amy Sohn, in her 7 November 2005 column on mating for "New York Magazine:, writes, "It is no longer taboo to be gay or unmarried, but if you don't want kids, everyone looks down on you. Even same sex couples get flak from their parents about ... making babies." This is a Darwinian reaction. If you don't want to continue the species, you're suspect. Gay or not, if you want out of a relationship, Sohn suggests you disclose a lack of interest in having children.
The other off limits topic is saying you're satisfied with your life. Discontent is as 21st century as Molson Lager is Canadian. If you think your life's okay, you're suspect. If you like short relationships, tell your date how happy you are with your life: the sane ones won't go out with you again and the psychos will try to make you as miserable as they can. Disclosure helps gauge possible mates.
We need to know because we are social animals. We've no razor-sharp claws, huge teeth or blistering speed to protect us. Wit is our saviour. It puts food on the table and enables refuge among strangers.
Disclosure fuels wit. Gads of new information must stream through our senses and into the brain for analysis. Based on the analysis, we know when to scamper from the savannah into the tall grass to avoid a predator, how to reap vegetation for a meal and who to trust.
Trust is the basis for reliance on others. Intimacy is the basis of trust. Disclosure is the basis of intimacy.
Pop lyrics dwell on disclosure. "Tell Her About It," the 1983 Billy Joel hit, is the obvious example. "I Don't Want to Talk About It," by Dan Whitten, takes a second listen. "If I stay here just a little bit longer; if I stay, won't you listen to my heart?" The disclosed plea is apparent, and never as obvious but when Rod Stewart and Amy Belle duet this lyric.
"Old Habits Die Hard," by Mick Jagger and Dave Stewart for the 2004 remake of "Alfie," may be a less obvious example: "We haven't spoken in months. You see I've been counting the days. I dream of such inanities and such insanities. ... I act like an addict. I just got to have it. I can never just leave it alone."
Love and loss are typical of the disclosure in pop lyrics. In 1971, Bernie Taupin, the bard of pop, leveled a timely sanction. "Blue jean baby; LA lady: seamstress for the band." Know your place, woman, he decried. Scorn was surely not his aim. Nonetheless, Cameron Crowe worked the suggestion, well, with the 2001 movie, "Almost Famous."
Note: situations and dialogues are fictive examples, not based on specific events or inspired by a specific person, unless explicitly stated as such. Examples are inspired by song lyrics, movie scenes and old joke.
dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.
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